It was 15 years ago this week that Edward L Bernays – the oft-named and sometimes controversial “father of public relations” – passed away.
Edward Bernays with Eleanor Roosevelt
Four years before his death, I visited Bernays in his Cambridge, MA home. It was a memorable experience. We talked about a lot of things, including international politics, his impending 100th birthday, religion, his well-known clients, people power, the impact of action vs. words and of course his most precious topic… his belief that public relations practitioners should be licensed and regulated.
I’ll post a Bernays blog on three successive days this week to capture everything.
A little background about Bernays
By way of introduction for the uninitiated, Bernays coined the phrase “public relations counsel” in 1919 and is widely considered the modern day father of public relations. He’s credited with building public relations into a major industry by making corporations and institutions understand the value of PR, and pay for it.
Bernays was the nephew of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. His seminal first book – Crystallizing Public Opinion – published in 1923 – was instrumental in making public relations an academic discipline. He created the PR industry’s first code of ethics.
In partnership with his wife Doris Fleischman, he advised such clients as Enrico Caruso, Samuel Goldwyn, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Ford and presidents of the United States from Coolidge through Eisenhower. His list of corporate clients was a “who’s who,” including Procter & Gamble, General Electric, General Motors, United Fruit Company, Westinghouse, Time, CBS and NBC.
In 1990, Life magazine named him one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th Century. He lived a robust life, passing away at age 103.
One-on-one with Edward L. Bernays
Bernays with President Eisenhower
Bernays greeted me personally at the side-door kitchen of his century-old Lowell Street home. At that moment in time, he was 99 years old, less than two months from celebrating his centennial with hundreds of people at the Charles Hotel. No one else was home, not even his controversial live-in housekeeper of the time. It was just Bernays & Beaupre.
A diminutive figure with a neat moustache and time-worn jacket, he walked with unexpected ease over creaky floors and up a flight of stairs to his second story office, a narrow, long room facing Lowell Street with many windows. We settled in and I began peppering him with questions.
The first thing that struck me was the way he carried himself. Born in Vienna in 1892, he retained a gracious and mannered charm. The letters I received from him prior to my arrival were painstakingly written in longhand. He answered his own phone. He was cordial, considerate and polite.
The second thing that struck me was Bernays’ eagerness, an impressive attribute at the century mark. Sometimes it was hard getting a full question out of my mouth; he’d jump right in and start answering. He wasn’t being impolite, he just couldn’t wait to express his views. He had energy and zip to spare.
Bernays was alert, informed and his global perspective impressive. Major political change had occurred in the Soviet Republic at the time of our conversation, so I recalled Bernays’ quote from 1958 citing the “monolithic propaganda of Soviet Russia,” asking what he thought of the historic transformations.
“It shows that people power is more dominant than central power. That was proven during the time of Louis XVI, years after the American Revolution, when one of the most powerful monarchs of the time was eliminated, kicked out. It was one of the great manifestations of people power which is the most important force in the world.” He repeated this view in the context of China.
My topic of Russia was of great interest to him because Bernays was instrumental in making the country of Lithuania independent.
“What I did was find an attractive young woman (she was in fact a daughter of a Pennsylvania coal miner from Lithuania) and then we (The Lithuanian National Council) dressed her up in white as the ‘Joan of Arc of Lithuania.’ We’d write out what she should say and then we sent her around on a tour.”
In Bernays’ Biography of an Idea (1965), he explained how she became a “human symbol” to represent Lithuania. “She fought hard for recognition of her homeland,” he wrote, and over time “our articles and activities swung editorial opinion… and the word ‘Lithuania’ began to have meaning for Americans.” On July 27, 1922, the U.S. officially recognized Lithuania. Lithuania became independent in 1919 and stayed independent until the Soviets took it over in 1940.
At the time of our get-together, Lithuania was being admitted into the United Nations as an independent country. I'm sure that was particularly rewarding to him.